Few things had stopped, or even slowed, the North Carolina offense during the past month. Not the highly-recruited, former blue-chip prospects on Florida State’s defense, or the tense circumstances in the fourth quarter of an improbable victory against Pittsburgh.
Not James Madison, before that, or Illinois. But the 17th-ranked Tar Heels (4-2, 2-1 ACC) met their match on Saturday at Kenan Stadium, where they had few answers amid the whipping rain and wind on the outskirts of Hurricane Matthew, and equally few solutions for a punishing Virginia Tech defense.
The elements, nasty throughout, undoubtedly contributed to UNC’s demise. Yet Virginia Tech played in them, too, and thrived, especially defensively, during a 34-3 victory that reshapes the Coastal Division race.
Why UNC lost
The Tar Heels generated 131 yards of offense, their fewest under coach Larry Fedora, and their fewest since a 2011 loss at N.C. State. UNC finished with more turnovers (four) than points, and the Tar Heels combined for more punts and turnovers on downs (five) than first downs (eight).
The No. 25 Hokies (4-1, 2-0) weren’t all that much better offensively. But they took advantage of those UNC turnovers.
Five of Virginia Tech’s six scoring drives began inside the UNC 40-yard line. Three of the Hokies’ four touchdown drives began inside the UNC 30, all of them after either a UNC turnover or a failed fourth down conversion.
What it means
UNC’s defeat changes the dynamic of the Coastal Division race. The Tar Heels are attempting to repeat as division champions, and with a 2-1 conference record they still have a strong chance to do so.
The Hokies, though, took a big step forward on Saturday. It doesn’t get any easier, meanwhile, for the Tar Heels, who travel next weekend to Miami.
In the context of the season, this was a deflating loss for the Tar Heels. Saturday was the first time two ranked teams had played at Kenan Stadium since 2008, and bad weather and equally bad UNC performance negated what had been a prime opportunity to continue the momentum after that victory at Florida State last weekend.
Despite a relatively poor first half, the Tar Heels were still in decent enough position at the start of the third quarter. They trailed 13-3 but received the kickoff to begin the second half.
That drive ended, though, with a Mitch Trubisky fumble that Virginia Tech recovered, the Hokies scored on their first offensive play on Jerod Evans’ 22-yard pass to Sam Rogers.
UNC’s next drive ended with Tom Sheldon fumbling a punt snap. The Hokies recovered on the UNC 4-yard line and scored another touchdown moments later.
In a span of less than five minutes, Virginia Tech turned a 13-3 lead into a 27-3 lead. UNC never came close to mustering a rally.
The Tar Heels’ 131 yards were their fewest under Fedora. Their previous low under Fedora had been 207 yards in a loss against N.C. State in 2014.
Nasty weather and a nasty performance in defeat here for UNC, which will need to regroup in a hurry before another key divisional game next weekend at Miami.